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Is Apple's ability to out-innovate competitors dependent on Steve Jobs?

Despite record sales during the fiscal quarter leading up to Christmas, Apple?s stock dipped after CEO Steve Jobs announced that he would be taking another medical leave of absence. Does this represent an opportunity for competitors?

In the short term, many believe that Steve Jobs? medical leave should have minimal impact on the performance of the company, both in smartphones and in the several other sectors where Apple plays, as this year?s product releases and tactics have been planned well in advance. However, the story is quite different in the long term.

?Tim Cook, the current COO, has shown a strong ability to run Apple?s operations, knows the business thoroughly and has filled in for Mr. Jobs before,? said Alex Spektor senior analyst of wireless device strategies at Strategy Analytics, Newton, MA. ?[However,] Mr. Jobs himself is one of Apple?s core differentiators.

?A significant part of Apple?s success should be attributed to Mr. Jobs? strong top-down management style and long-term vision,? he said. ?While Mr. Cook and the rest of the senior management team at Apple should be credited with helping to execute this vision, Apple?s ability to out-innovate the competition will be dependent on Mr. Jobs.

?The sudden drop in the firm?s stock price reflects that Apple?s shareholders share this view.?

Apple?s holiday season earnings
Despite questions swirling about the company?s future, Apple closed out 2010 with a bang.

For its fiscal 2011 first quarter that ended Dec. 25, the company claims that it posted record revenue of $26.74 billion and record net quarterly profit of $6 billion.

These results compare to revenue of $15.68 billion and net quarterly profit of $3.38 billion in the year-ago quarter.

International sales accounted for 62 percent of the quarter?s revenue, per Apple.

The company sold 16.24 million iPhones in the quarter, representing 86 percent unit growth over the year-ago quarter. It also sold 7.33 million iPads during the quarter.

However, aficionados, investors and competitors are all imagining what the future of the company would look like without Apple?s iconic leader, Mr. Jobs, at the helm.

Could Apple's misfortune mean success for competitors?

The Jobs premium
Jia Wu, senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, said in a blog post that everyone is talking about Steve Jobs? medical leave and quite a lot of analysts are trying to figure out ?the Jobs premium? on Apple?s stock value.

As of the end of the day Tuesday, Jan. 18, it turned out that Steve Jobs? medical leave message caused the company?s stock price to dip 2.3 percent.

?Investors are pretty confident that Jobs will be back very soon, and the public now has stronger faith in the team Jobs has built to run Apple in the future,? Mr. Wu said.  ?On top of these, I believe Apple has already done major product planning work for the year, so Jobs can to take some time to rest at this point."

At the CES two weeks ago in Las Vegas, an Asian company leaked rumors that it has already received Apple?s plan to manufacture iPhone 5.

The new iPhone 5 will certainly come out sometime this year, per Strategy Analytics.

?We also guess that iPad 2 is in similar situation, and the two new product releases could help Apple maintain its lead in the smartphone and tablet space for quite some time until Jobs comes back,? Mr. Wu said.

?But certainly we don?t have any doubts on [the ability of] Tim Cook?s team to run the company, which has been proven by Jobs? last medical leave,? he said.

OS wars
The race for the lead in U.S. smartphone operating system consumer market share is tighter than it has ever been, according to recent data from The Nielsen Co. (see story).

The popularity of Google?s Android OS among those who purchased a smartphone in the last six months (40 percent) makes it the leading OS among recent acquirers.

However, despite that surge, when it comes to overall consumer market share, Android (25.8 percent) is still behind Apple?s iOS (28.6 percent), per Nielsen.

In addition, Research In Motion?s BlackBerry is still a force to be reckoned with in North America.

Other competitors hoping to make a dent in the market in 2011 include Microsoft?s Windows Phone 7, Nokia?s various operating systems and HP?s Palm WebOS.

Will Apple be able to keep a step ahead of the innovation cycle without its visionary taking an active role in the company?

?The opportunity for competitors would be if Mr. Jobs? absence slows down Apple?s innovation in any way?then they could make an attempt to try and close the gap a little bit,? said Scott Michaels, vice president at Atimi Software, Vancouver, BC, Canada. ?However, I don?t believe that a group could come up with a whole ecosystem that matches what Apple has created.

?Apple announced really amazing figures around the holidays,? he said. ?If you think about products for this year, hardware takes longer than a few months to come together, so the plans for this year are fairly set?Mr. Jobs was there to put all the wheels in motion.?

More than 30 different Android tablets from various device manufacturers were announced at CES, and BlackBerry is also entering the tablet arena.

With various screen sizes, price points and feature sets, 2011 will see many contenders and pretenders attempt to compete with the iPad.

The iPad 2 will undoubtedly sell well, but if competitors are able to offer a comparable experience at a lower price point, Apple could still lose market share.

?Apple?s competitors are doing exciting things,? Mr. Michaels said. ?Is any one of them going to come out a clear winner and become the top Android tablet to compete with iPad? They are all pretty even.

?The Motorola Xoom is one of the more powerful tablets, as it is running Honeycomb?it has a good headstart because it is the first one showing all of the pieces moving together,? he said.

Apple is breaking records with its sales figures and has a dedicated base of consumers, as well as brands, agencies and publishers that are making its mobile devices a priority for launching products, services and campaigns.

However, competition in the mobile device space has never been more intense, not to mention iAd's many competitors in the mobile ad network business.

It is hard to envision Apple without Steve Jobs calling the shots. It is even harder to envision the company staying at the forefront of the industry without him, although the company is doing its best to convince everyone that it will be just fine.

?One thing that I noticed after Steve Jobs took his last leave of absence, Apple was putting more people forward in presentations, and even after he returned and everything was good, there was more representation from people from his team,? Mr. Michaels said. ?Apple realized that they do need a more defined succession plan so that people know that there are more people at Apple than just Steve Jobs.

?Losing Steve Jobs would be a huge loss for Apple, just like losing your flagship person would be for any company,? he said. ?That said, Apple is better prepared than it was a year ago to cope with the loss of Mr. Jobs.

?Apple has competent executives who are able to fill the considerable void he would leave.?

Final Take
Mr. Jobs at Stanford